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Pittsburgh Raises Concern Over Self-Driving Vehicle Bill

A bill touted to help companies that are developing self-driving cars test the vehicles in Pennsylvania without an emergency driver available could be facing serious opposition, in part from the city.

(TNS) — A bill touted to help companies developing self-driving cars test the vehicles in Pennsylvania without an emergency driver available could be facing serious opposition.

A Carnegie Mellon University professor who has been involved in writing national safety standards for self-driving vehicles says Senate Bill 965 has serious technical and safety problems, favors industry too much and should be rewritten.

The city of Pittsburgh, which hosts several companies investing billions to develop self-driving vehicles, also opposes any attempt to limit the city’s ability to set safety standards for testing in the city.

The bill was introduced as a bipartisan effort by Yassmin Gramian, secretary of the Department of Transportation, and state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Bedford, at a news conference Jan. 5 at Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, a site used for testing self-driving vehicles. The goal was to allow testing without a safety driver present, as other states have allowed, to encourage the future development of expected trillion dollar industry of manufacturing components for the vehicles in this region.

Philip Koopman, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, expressed his concerns about the legislation in a Post-Gazette op-ed article on Monday and followed with a blog post and a letter to the bill’s sponsors. Mr. Koopman is a member of a committee that developed safety standards for the Society of Automotive Engineers International, based in Warrendale, and has worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“The short version is that this bill should not be passed without significant changes,” Mr. Koopman said in his blog post. “Overall, this bill suffers from a significant imbalance regarding the tradeoff between risks and benefits to Pennsylvania residents. Companies stand to benefit enormously by using public roads as a living laboratory to assist in developing automated vehicle technology.

“However, other road users are not afforded commensurate safety and compensation assurances for the risks they take from sharing the road with immature technology that presents a real and present danger to other road users.”

In an interview, Mr. Koopman said the bill, which would put all regulatory power with the state, includes some “sloppy” and “unartful” language that could prevent local police from enforcing routine traffic laws on test vehicles and would limit the liability developers could face in traffic accidents involving self-driving vehicles to $5 million no matter how many victims would be involved.

“There are things in there that are really drafting errors, and those should be corrected,” he said. “A lot of the rest are policy issues that should be debated to see if what it says is really the direction we want to go.”

A key provision of the bill criticism is one that would shift all of the regulatory power to the state and not allow local communities to set their own standards. Former Mayor Bill Peduto, who left office Dec. 31, welcomed self-driving developers to the city and hammered out safety standards with them before the state developed its own minimums.

Mr. Koopman called that provision “especially problematic” because testing would be done on local streets where the state has no responsibility or liability. New Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration said it is still reviewing the bill, but it isn’t interested in giving up local safety standards.

“The City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure’s number one priority is the safety of our residents and visitors,” Kim Lucas, acting department director, said in a statement. “Maintaining the safety of our public through the management of our public space is a core responsibility of our City and Department, and any restriction on our ability to regulate highly automated vehicles on City streets would compromise the City’s ability to ensure the safety of our citizens.”

PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell said in a statement that PennDOT is aware of concerns about the bill and stressed that the department can continue to develop regulations and guidelines. The agency will work with the Legislature to develop the bill, she said.

“The legislation is designed to provide a high-level, legal structure for [autonomous vehicles] to operate while ensuring that PennDOT can collaboratively work with the AV companies and other stakeholders to address safety while adapting to changes in the industry and national/global best practices,” she said. “To be clear, all vehicles — automated or not — must obey the traffic laws set forth in the Vehicle Code.”

Neither Mr. Langerholc nor his staff could be reached for comment.

© 2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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